In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won 83 games, the World Series, and completely warranted anger and jealousy from otherwise neutral baseball fans. The team was more talented than their record—Jim Edmonds and Mark Mulder were among the players to miss significant time due to injury—but by Pythagorean record, essentially an adjusted version of run differential, the Cardinals were even worse, deserving a 82-79 record by the metric. Albert Pujols was an MVP candidate, Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter were very good, and the next-best player on the team by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement was a better-hitting version of Left Fielder Matt Adams.
The Cardinals were a slightly above-average team that got extraordinarily lucky. Eighty-three wins only wins a handful of divisions in MLB history, and the 2006 NL Central happened to be one of them. Had the Houston Astros turned just one of their one-run losses into a victory, the Cardinals would have been forced to play an additional game which was never rescheduled. Who knows what happens from there? A very forgettable season was in play. And that’s not even to mention what happens if Carlos Beltran tracked Adam Wainwright’s gorgeous curve perfectly and smashed it into the autumn night in Queens.
The margin between immortality and something less than it is sometimes self-evident: if Nelson Cruz catches David Freese’s fly ball in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, it was still an exhilarating run for the Cardinals, but there is one less World Champions banner hanging at Busch Stadium. But what if instead of grounding into a double play to end the season of the 2011 Atlanta Braves, Freddie Freeman hit a two-run home run and the Cardinals would need Kyle Lohse to pitch in a tie-breaker?
The 2017 Cardinals won 83 games and fell four games shy of the second Wild Card spot which was earned by the Colorado Rockies. In 2017, it means a Cardinals team which was in contention for a division crown until the last week of the season. In 2016, it means a Cardinals team which would have lost the NL Central by twenty games. In 2006, it means a World Series champion.
By Pythagorean win-loss record, the Cardinals deserved a record of 87-75: not a great team, but on pace with the Colorado Rockies team which won the coveted second Wild Card spot. The Rockies outscored their opponents by 67 runs in 2017; the Cardinals outscored theirs by 56. By this measure, the Cardinals were worse than the Rockies; not much worse, but only one team could get the playoff berth, and it made sense for the slightly better team to earn it.
At 41.3 fWAR, the Cardinals ranked eighth among position players and tenth among pitchers. The only teams who ranked higher by fWAR were the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, and Arizona Diamondbacks. All seven of these teams made it into the 2017 postseason. The Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Colorado Rockies, all of whom remain contenders for a World Series title, were worse by WAR, as were the Milwaukee Brewers team which finished ahead of the Cardinals to finish in second place in the NL Central.
The eighth-place Cardinals finish in position player WAR is a reflection on the results of the team’s component parts. The team finished 9th in Offensive Runs Above Average and 7th in Defensive Runs Above Average; the least effective element of the Cardinals’ offensive attack, base running, was still in the top half of MLB teams, ranking 15th.
By win-loss record, 2017 was the least successful Cardinals season of the John Mozeliak era, since 2008. But of the ten Cardinals teams since John Mozeliak became the team’s general manager, the 2017 iteration ranked fourth in position player fWAR and sixth in pitcher fWAR. This is the breakdown of team combined fWAR totals, along with the team’s final finish in the standings or playoffs.
- 2008: 43.4 fWAR, 4th place
- 2009: 42.3 fWAR, 1st place
- 2010: 37.1 fWAR, 2nd place
- 2011: 42.1 fWAR, World Series champions
- 2012: 46.2 fWAR, lost in NLCS as WC2
- 2013: 40.9 fWAR, lost in World Series
- 2014: 37 fWAR, lost in NLCS
- 2015: 44.1 fWAR, lost in NLDS after 100 win season
- 2016: 39.6 fWAR, 2nd place
- 2017: 41.3 fWAR, 3rd place
The worst team by FanGraphs WAR of the last decade made the NLCS. The best won 88 games, the sixth-best of the ten seasons. The 2017 Cardinals team was worse than a team which finished in fourth place in 2008; it was also better than a 2013 team which won 97 games, had the best record in the National League, and was two games away from winning a World Series.
Like many other writers at Viva El Birdos, I find Mike Matheny to be a largely lackluster and mediocre-on-a-good-day manager, but one of the sillier tropes among anti-Matheny Cardinals fans is the belief that the Cardinals cannot win a World Series with him at the helm. In 2013, it was right there. Game 4 of the World Series ended with the Cardinals’ tying run at the plate, and Game 5 was tied entering the seventh inning.
If just one of those games changes outcomes, a game seven is forced and perhaps the Cardinals win it all. With a team that some numbers suggest was worse than this year’s squad. This doesn’t mean that Mike Matheny was a better manager than he is now—he certainly bunts less, if nothing else—mostly, the Cardinals were luckier (famously, or infamously, the 2013 Birdos sported a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position). The Cardinals can win a title with Mike Matheny, but if he reduces the odds of this title happening, this is a problem. But that’s a different discussion.
The key for every front office in baseball in every off-season should be to improve the team however possible. The early 2010s were seasons full of excellent fortune (even the mostly unlucky 2012 team suddenly got lucky in the postseason, took down a 98-win Washington Nationals team, and made it to the seventh game of the NLCS, a perfectly acceptable conclusion to the season), and banking on Cardinals Devil Magic to continue was always foolish.
The Cardinals have a good team. They don’t have a great team and they should work to improve. But overreacting to a so-so season by results would make about as much sense as banking on the 2013 Cardinals to carry a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position into 2014. It should go without saying that the 2017 Cardinals were imperfect and there are steps the organization should take, but to deem 2017 a lost cause season is a bit of an oversimplification of the effect of luck on a baseball team.